A new study has revealed that snakes’ success in surviving on Earth is partly due to an asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs.
The collision caused great destruction with the death of most of the animals and plants. But scientists say only a handful of surviving snake species were able to thrive in a post-earthquake world by hiding underground and going for extended periods without food.
Then the reptiles adapted to the new situation spread around the world, evolving into the 3,000 or more species known today.
The famous dinosaurs became extinct when an asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago, causing earthquakes, tsunamis and wildfires, followed by a decade of darkness when ash clouds obscured the sun.
An estimated 76% of plants and animals disappeared. But snakes, like some other mammals, birds, frogs and fish, have managed to cling to life.
Dr Catherine Klein, who led the research at the University of Bath, said: ‘In such an environment that the food system has collapsed, snakes are able to survive and thrive, and are able to settle on new continents and interact with their environment in new ways. “It is possible that had it not been for the collision of this asteroid, it would not have reached what it is today,” she added.
By the time the asteroid hit Mexico, the snakes were very similar to the ones we know today: legless with jaws extended to swallow prey.
With food in short supply, their ability to survive without food for up to a year and hunt in the dark after a disaster likely was instrumental in their survival.
The handful of snake species that survived are those that live underground or at the bottom of the forest and in fresh water.
With little competition from other animals, snakes had a blank slate of space to straddle different evolutionary paths and across the globe, and were first settled in Asia.
Over time, snakes became larger and more widespread, taking advantage of new habitats and new prey. New groups appeared, including giant sea snakes, up to 10 meters in length.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that all living snakes belong to species that survived the impact of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
The diversity of modern snakes – including tree snakes, sea snakes, venomous vipers and cobras, and huge contemporaries such as boas and vipers – only emerged after this mass extinction.
And such events – when at least half of all species die in a relatively short time – have occurred only a few times in the course of our planet’s history.
In the periods immediately following the major extinctions, evolution is “at its most experimental and innovative,” said Dr Nick Longrich of the Milner Center for Evolutionary Research at the University of Bath.
The study also found evidence of a second explosion in snake growth and development that occurred as the world shifted from a “warm land” to a cooler climate, marked the formation of polar ice caps and the onset of ice ages.
Snakes have been incredibly successful in living and growing on land and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They live in most ecosystems, from the ocean to dry deserts. There are snakes that live underground and those that live on the tops of trees. They vary in size from a few centimeters to more than 6 meters.
Snakes are extremely important to the health of ecosystems, keeping prey under control and helping humans by controlling harmful insects. Because of its conflict with humans, many species are threatened with extinction.
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